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Timing fortuitous for Dirty Projectors Coffman
Amber Coffman (bottom center) and Dave Longstreth (left) are part of the ambitious indie rock act Dirty Projectors. - photo by Photo courtesy of Sarah Cass
Being in the right place at the right time is pivotal for a young musician seeking to grow creatively. So is leaving.
Witness singer and guitarist Amber Coffman, 25. She moved to San Diego from Arizona in 2002 and then experienced an artistic epiphany a year later while attending a one-man concert by Dave Longstreth at Gelato Vero Caffe, a San Diego ice-cream parlor.
A former member of the San Diego band Sleeping People, Coffman now is living — and thriving — in New York as a key member of Longstreth's group, Dirty Projectors. The three-woman, three-man band is one of the most celebrated and innovative indie rock acts to emerge in recent years.
"It feels like I'm on the right path, and it feels good," Coffman said, speaking from her apartment in Brooklyn.
"I don't pinch myself, but I'm very grateful. It's validating for me to be in Dirty Projectors, just in the sense that I always imagined myself doing the essence of the things I'm doing now."
Longstreth, a 2005 Yale music graduate and the mastermind of Dirty Projectors, sounded similarly enthusiastic when discussing Coffman's musical contributions to his wildly ambitious group.
"Amber is amazing," he said, in a separate interview from New York. "She's a great player and a great part of the team. She is sort of the heart of the band. She's crucial."
Coffman and Longstreth met briefly after his 2003 Gelato Vero gig. They spoke at greater length a few years later, when Sleeping People and Dirty Projectors both performed at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas.
"Dave had a six-piece band, and it was incredible. People were begging for more," recalled Coffman, an Austin native, whose day job in San Diego was at People's Food Co-op.
"A week after Austin, I went to see Dirty Projectors in Los Angeles. I took a member of Sleeping People with me, and he said it was the best concert he'd seen all year. After that, Dave and I stayed in contact. In the meanwhile, I formed an a cappella group with six girls in South Park. It was kind of a steppingstone for me moving to New York and joining Dave to make music."
At its best, Dirty Projectors' music is intricately constructed yet visceral, challenging and provocative, but not smug or pedantic.
Coffman's pinpoint vocal skills are featured prominently on "Bitte Orca," the band's seventh and latest album, which is also the group's most fully realized and consistent work to date. Written specifically for the band's front line of three female singers, Dirty Projectors' songs require meticulous attention to detail and lots of practice for its members to master.
"Usually, Dave sits down with the three of us and will teach us the parts individually," Coffman said. "It takes hours and hours to remember some of the stuff. Sometimes, Dave will make little mock-up recordings for us, and we'll listen on our own. For the most part, we learn it all by ear."
Longstreth released his first album, "The Graceful Fallen Mango," in 2002. He began making Dirty Projectors' 2005 breakthrough album, "The Getty Address," during his sophomore year at Yale.
Left of center and proud of it, Longstreth is as conversant with rock and world music as he is with contemporary classical and jazz. Accordingly, he lit up when asked to comment on the influence of trumpeter Miles Davis' seminal 1969 jazz-rock album, "Bitches Brew," and on "OK Computer," Radiohead's 1997 art-rock opus.
"The weird part is that those textures read so well as embodiments of what always felt to me like a distinctly contemporary kind of sanitary and technologized existential malaise," Longstreth said. "Of course, I wasn't alive when 'Bitches Brew' was fresh."
A cause celebre of the indie rock scene, Longstreth has become wary (or at least weary) of the media, in part because he has been so in demand. At the time of this conversation, he was doing his third interview of the day and ninth of the week.
But musical topics resonate with him, including the decades-old debate about whether feeling is more important than technique or vice versa.
"The old punk ethos of knowledge being the enemy of honesty? I don't think that gets you very far," he said.
"But I don't cherish the rules or anything. (Friedrich) Nietzsche had the whole parable of the camel, the lion and the child. He was basically saying that first, you are the reverent spirit that bears much (creatively). Then you have to kind of rage against all of that. And finally, you can be like a little child, just playing around in your backyard."
And what if that child is also the leader of an indie buzz band called Dirty Projectors?
"You know, I really admire people like Miles (Davis) and (Bob) Dylan, of a certain era, who were putting together these great bands and leading them," Longstreth said.
"But with this band, it wouldn't be appropriate to try to emulate my impression of what that vibe was like with Miles and Dylan. It's just a matter of figuring out what people need and want. Writing music for these people is natural for me to do because it's nice to have a family, even if it's a dysfunctional family."